Marguerite Duras loved to write about aftermath. “Very early in my life it was too late,” relays the famous narrator of The Lover, a mouthpiece who both is and isn’t a stand-in for the author. Young though they are, Duras’s protagonists are already wandering through the ends of seismic things: girlhood, desire, or the hope for an alternate fate.
The Easy Life, too, is all about aftermath. But as with trains, one aftermath can hide another. The novel opens after a fight on some rural railroad tracks, where a young woman named Francine has just watched her brother strike their uncle Jérôme, delivering a brutal blow. Like scavengers, the siblings trail the injured man at a distance, back up the hill to their family farm. Ten days later, the uncle dies of his injuries. This sets the plot of The Easy Life racing like a tongue of fire that has found a fuse—there’s nothing left to do but follow where it burns.
As this dark pastoral advances in Francine’s perspective, you start to learn more about her capacity to parse the people in her life. Frankly (and I say this with love), Francine is a little scary. At first, nothing seems to escape her. She’s a femme-fatale just graduated from girlhood: young, but the older sibling too; sensitive to pleasure, but stripped down by hardship to essentials. Remorse, she says, is an almost impossible luxury, “an easy vanity to fight off,” yet she’s still got time for writerly touches. In the country lanes leading away from her family’s farm, she notices how a song from the house follows her out into the night: “after the courtyard, it still tried to walk by my side, then it was gone.” No one in the family can match her swagger. She’s a character at the height of her bravado—someone who thinks she can save herself simply by keeping her cool.
But while Jérôme’s death ripples through the family, we learn that Francine is more than a watcher. Her love is just as fierce as her compartmentalization. She’s the one who overheard, in the night, the sounds of their uncle sleeping with her brother’s wife, and it disgusted her. She’s the one who told her brother this secret, which sent him into a rage. The uncle himself is something of a cipher—we’re told that he lost all the family’s money in failed investment schemes, and that without him, they will all finally be free. If this sounds too neat, it probably is, but there’s a confidence to Francine that is both pathological and convincing. She’s both the architect of the crisis and its fixer; everyone seems to follow her lead. “What would I say to the doctor?” she wonders. “I was certain that at the last minute I would find some explanation, quite naturally.” She tells him her uncle has been kicked by a horse. And it seems, at first, as if the murder won’t bring home any further consequences.
Duras, though, is the queen of blind spots so gaping that I’m tempted to call them doors to oblivion. Her heroines possess a kind of indifference, but it’s inevitability in disguise. Francine often refers to her family’s boredom, but to me it felt more like repression—the steady, background looming of consequences outside of their control. At moments, the damage barrels through, and Francine’s despair emerges—rendered with stunning, feral clarity by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes. “The sky turned white over the fir trees in the garden and the bells tolled,” they translate, resisting any kind of false tidiness:
Here’s the dawn, the night cracks all over. You thought it would be eternal. You should have slept. Because here’s another, an immense day that will last until tonight. Everything has already passed. Everything has already passed to the other side, even Jérôme’s death, tipped into the abyss where the days pile up once they’ve been emptied, even my life that drags alongside the years and my age without ever falling in.
It’s seductive, this careening logic, and difficult to excerpt. By the time you’ve gotten here, you’ve already decided whether or not you’re going to let yourself succumb to the headiness Duras demands. Francine may have lit the fuse that explodes her life, but somewhere along the way, she’s forgotten the danger, and this obliviousness makes her a complex and appealing character. At times, she can’t even locate what drove her to rat out their uncle and his illicit mistress. “Why had I denounced them?” Francine asks herself in a quiet moment, trying not to let it get to her conscience. If that verb “denounce” (dénoncer) stands out to you, it should: The Easy Life was first published in 1944, after years of Vichy France, when Pétanists turned in their neighbors, often on petty pretexts and for personal gain. Here, the word is a subtle mark of the seriousness of Francine’s actions: a reminder that the stories you set in motion belong to you, even if you don’t participate in their ultimate conclusions.
If Duras’s heroines feel old before their time, it’s partly because they made the choices that determined their lives before they even realized they were choosing, which is a tragedy bravado can’t fix. “No one warned me that I would live,” thinks Francine, “If I had known that one day I would have a story, I would have chosen it, I would have lived with more care to make it beautiful and true so that I would like it. Now it’s too late.”
I risk giving away the plot if I say more, so let’s turn to structure. There’s a hinge in the center of this book when an even more shocking event divides beginning from aftermath. When Francine loses control of the outer world, she has to try to change her inner one. She leaves her family, such as it is, for the seaside, where she sits alone by the water, devoured by her own raw, recursive narration. Her mind keeps doubling back on itself, sometimes too intensely, more than the novelistic form can comfortably bear. You can feel her, climbing the walls of her own story. But there’s plenty of gorgeousness in the seabirds, “their snowy broods in the hollow of the stones beaten by the sea.” And Francine’s hunger to live is no less glorious in its blasted, grief-stricken state, as she struggles to come to terms with her power and its limitations. “Until now I had hoped to be alive as other species too,” she thinks. “To run down the hill like Clément’s dog. To spread my branches one day like the magnolia tree in the courtyard. I never admitted to myself that it seemed impossible to be a dog in disguise, a tree in disguise.” You admire Francine for these wild desires, which are really a transmutation of impossible longings. Her inward turn—her reckoning with the immutable parts of herself—brings her closer to the task of writing from lived experience, what Duras called “a step in the walk of suffering.” There’s such a transformative lushness to this despair, to its arrival as a medium for understanding. In the second half of this book, Francine, like Duras, is authoring herself into being.
The Easy Life was only Duras’s second novel. When it came out, she was thirty. She’d married a fellow member of the resistance, and he’d been caught and sent to Buchenwald. Other friends were deported or lost their lives. The year before she wrote The Easy Life, she lost her younger brother without being able to see him or say goodbye. The foundational tragedy of her world was already in place.
As she would do many more times in her work, Duras walked parts of herself through the door of the world she had created. Perhaps it felt safer to court the oblivion of grief in fiction, where the demands of form would ultimately turn her away from the abyss. But even here, I’m getting ahead of myself—Duras, in these years, was not yet the auto-fictionalized myth of herself, not yet what the critic Elisabeth Philippe called a literary mythology. In this excellent new translation, you can discover her as the long aftermath was just beginning, when her voice was a line of ash in the grass, and a hungry, traveling flame.
The Easy Life by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes (Bloomsbury, 2022).
© 2023 by Laura Marris. All rights reserved.